Realm Divided: A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England by Dan Jones

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Realm Divided: A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England by Dan Jones

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A colourful account of England during the pivotal year of 1215, in which the wayward King John was brought to heel by his barons and forced to sign Magna Carta. The author subscribes to some extent to the old-fashioned view that John had barely any redeeming qualities and that his reign was a disaster, but he conveys the struggle between the monarch and his subjects vividly and includes some vivid essays on social history.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781858820

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1215 has gone down in history as the year of Magna Carta, the result of King John's increasingly discontented barons attempts to exert control over their wayward and stubborn monarch. John had succeeded to the throne of England in 1199, at the end of an often turbulent century. His father, Henry II, had succeeded in restoring the authority of the crown after almost twenty years of civil war between the supporters of two rival claimants to the kingdom. He had inherited a challenging set on both sides of the Channel, and within four years had been driven out of most of the French ones, notably the duchy of Normandy. Posterity would bestow on him the unflattering nicknames 'John Softsword' and later 'John Lackland'.

Historical tradition has generally accepted the verdict of contemporary chroniclers that he was one of the most inept, even downright bad, of British monarchs. Eventually there was a reaction against this verdict, with some scholars asserting that while he may have been just as spiteful, suspicious, cruel and given to bursts of uncontrollable temper as several of his predecessors, he was an able general and hard-working administrator, although good fortune was rarely on his side. Jones acknowledges that despite his faults he was keen-eyed, capable and industrious, and that 'Kings were not supposed or expected to be nice'; pious kindly ones were generally weak and ineffective.

All the same, his book reverts in part to the time-honoured judgment, suggesting that he had few redeeming features, and that his reign was little short of a total disaster. It is certainly difficult to dispute that the battle of Bouvines in 1214 at which a combined army of English, German and Flemish soldiers was defeated by the French, following several unsettled years in England with the King and his barons at odds with each other, was a major humiliation. Moreover, it brought baronial grievances against the monarch and Plantagenet kingship in general to a head. If matters had continued as they were, with unrest about to erupt into open rebellion, the sovereign and perhaps even his dynasty might even be driven off the throne. Meanwhile in France, the long struggle for domination between the Plantagenets and their Capetian rivals was coming to a head, with good fortune favouring the latter.

By the summer of 1215 England was close to civil war, and John was forced to meet his rebellious barons at Runnymede. Grievances were addressed, and Magna Carta was signed. It was partly a peace treaty between both factions, and partly a charter promising the protection of church rights, access to fair justice for all, limitations on feudal taxation and other payments to the crown, and a guarantee of freedom from illegal imprisonment. In theory it looked like an ideal solution to everyone's problems, but John appealed to his former adversary now turned ally, Pope Innocent III who called it illegal and unjust, and declared it 'null and void of all validity forever'. The outcome was indeed war, with the barons supported by Prince Louis, heir to the throne of France. After the further disaster of losing many of his treasured possessions as well as men and animals in the Wash, John was at least spared the indignity of another defeat by dying of dysentery during the campaign, leaving the throne to his nine-year-old son Henry.

Yet the book is not merely a chronicle of events during that tortuous year. It is also an entertaining social history of life in early thirteenth-century England. Each chapter is followed by a brief section on subjects such as clothing, eating and drinking, scholarship and learning, justice, language, family life and leisure, telling us how people led their everyday existence.

I found this a very colourful and entertaining volume. Documentary evidence on the great and good (and perhaps not so good), and contemporary events during medieval times, is often poorly documented, and it must be appreciated that the records were often written by chroniclers who had some axe to grind and could not be relied on to produce an impartial history. While I feel it is inclined to portray John in too negative a light, it is still a lively account which I feel the author found fun to write, and it is great fun to read as well as being a fount of information on its subject.

If you enjoy this, may we also recommend the same author's Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter, or also the biography of King John's grandson A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris

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